The past month has seen mass protests across Europe as governments introduce coercive and discriminatory measures to contain a new wave of the pandemic. Protests have erupted in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Bulgaria to name a few countries. Similar developments have also been seen in other advanced capitalist countries, including the United States and Australia.
The very fact of these measures is an admission of bankruptcy by the ruling class over its handling of the pandemic. They have utterly mismanaged it from start to finish. Having fueled scepticism through their contradictory measures that protected profits ahead of human lives, they now propose to target the unvaccinated, blaming them for the ongoing health crisis. We roundly reject this attempt to divert blame away from the real criminals who have caused this crisis: the ruling class themselves.
Capitalist governments had hoped they were over the worst of the pandemic – at least in the richest countries in the world. In Austria, Chancellor Kurz even announced that the “societal pandemic is over”. Now that is proving clearly not to be the case: a fifth wave is ravaging Europe, whilst a wave of the Omicron variant – itself the product of vaccine hoarding, vaccine nationalism etc. – looms ever closer. And yet, these same governments are refusing to implement measures that would disrupt the ‘recovery’ (read: ‘profits’). Instead, they have chosen to place all emphasis on the unvaccinated with policies such as vaccine passes and mandates. The same governments also smell the potential in these measures to provoke division within the working class: between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, diverting blame from the bosses.
From the very beginning, responsibility for the spread of the pandemic has been cast onto ordinary people. Never mind the fact that governments and bosses have failed to provide sufficient PPE or adequate test and trace systems; never mind the fact that they downplayed the virus’ significance to keep businesses open; never mind the conditions to which bosses subjected their workers; never mind the incompetence that led to the bungling of vaccination efforts. It was all the individual’s fault.
The finger has been pointed at those not wearing masks. Or those who don’t keep a two metre distance in supermarkets. Or young people socialising over the summer. Or families coming together at Christmas. Or immigrants failing to understand restrictions because of a lack of proficiency in the native language. Every section of society that the ruling class could blame, they have blamed.
Now they are blaming the unvaccinated. Needless to say, we 100% favour mass vaccination. But, as our comrades in Austria recently explained: a society that cannot convince the people to protect their own lives and those of their loved ones by taking the vaccine is sick to the core.
The protests that have exploded across the continent are extremely heterogeneous and very confused. It is apparent that far-right groups have taken up residence at their core, and that it is these groups that politically set the tone. However, it is also clear that – much like the Capitol protests in the US at the start of 2021 – these protests express a profound, though often incoherent and desperate anger.
Millions of people have sacrificed everything in the past 18 months as this virus swept the world. At the same time, the billionaires have become vastly richer. In a hurry to re-establish the normal functioning of the capitalist system, and therefore capitalist profits, governments across Europe said the pandemic was over, celebrated “freedom day” and lifted all or most restrictions. Now, restrictions are being brought again. In most of the countries where protests or riots have broken out, big majorities of the working class support vaccination. Nonetheless, for another layer it’s clear that opposition to the latest measures has become, in a mixed and confused way, a focal point for more general accumulated anger towards the establishment.
This is about profit, not lives
There is one thing about which we have to be absolutely clear: where the bosses are pushing vaccine passes and other restrictions and compulsions – up to the point of mandatory vaccination – they are doing so, firstly, in order to protect their profits.
In Italy, the ‘green pass’ (proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test result) has been a requirement since 6 August this year for public venues. The pass requirement has also been extended to public transport, and some employers are using it to discriminate against unvaccinated employees, threatening to isolate them in workplaces, ban them from canteens, or else simply to send them home without pay.
The measures have provoked a series of demonstrations – involving a minority of the population that opposes the green pass – that have been ongoing every Saturday since the measures were introduced in major cities across the country. They have now entered their 19th week.
Meanwhile, the bosses’ federation, Confindustria, is urging the government to take much harsher measures, including compulsory vaccination measures like those introduced in Austria. Why? As a regional president of the Italian bosses’ federation told a recent gathering:
“If this is a war, [the unvaccinated] are deserters. We might not shoot anyone(!), but we must ensure that they feel their desertion as a burden. There will be no time to relax when we return to the previous situation [i.e. lockdown] because there will be no more money.” (our emphasis)
There it is in black and white: the bosses are demanding mandatory vaccinations because otherwise “there will be no more money”. They aren’t advocating shooting people in the name of protecting people’s health (at least, not yet!), but they do demand stern measures short of shooting people.
But let us remember that these are the exact same bosses who – back in early 2020 – fought against the introduction of lockdown restrictions! Indeed, as the virus was sweeping across Italy in February and March last year, the president of Confindustria petitioned Conte’s government to keep non-essential industries open.
These bosses are directly responsible for the scenes of horror that came out of the country last year, as the coffins of the dead piled up in industrial areas like Bergamo, where the bosses used workers like cannon-fodder for their profits.
And, of course, Italy is not an outlier.
In the Netherlands, a ‘corona pass’ was introduced on 25 September, requiring users of public services, hospitality and entertainment to prove that they are double vaccinated, and on 13 November a lockdown curfew came into effect. The result has been an outburst of protests in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Groningen and other cities, often ending in violence.
Yet in the spring of 2020, the same government of Mark Rutte took its lead from Boris Johnson’s government in Britain, pursuing a policy of herd immunity. The result was devastation: in a small nation of only 17 million people, 2.68 million people have been recorded as having caught the virus and nearly 20,000 people have now died. And, again responding to the demands of business, in summer this year the Rutte government removed all restrictions – just as the Delta variant was beginning to rip through Europe.
Having downplayed the virus and spread confusion about the danger that it represents, the Dutch government – like the Italian government and a host of governments in Europe and beyond – are now coming forward with corona pass proposals to keep businesses open. But it is precisely their mismanagement and contradictory messaging in the course of the pandemic that their latest measures are distrusted by a significant minority of the population.
If the message coming from capitalist governments has been confusing, breeding disorientation and scepticism, it has at least had one constant: the protection of profits and profits alone.
Mass vaccination is crucial to finding a route out of this pandemic. Why then, has there been such widespread hesitancy and even hostility to the vaccine, reflected in low levels of uptake? In Austria – where the government has recently announced its intention to implement mandatory vaccinations from February – only 62% of the population are fully vaccinated. In Germany – where a lockdown for the unvaccinated is being proposed, and where the health minister recently warned that by the end of the winter everyone will be either “vaccinated, recovered or dead” – just 68% of citizens have had both doses.
The low uptake reflects pervasive distrust of governments, pharmaceutical companies and the entire establishment.
But who can be blamed for wariness towards an establishment which has time and again proven its indifference to the healthcare of ordinary people? Capitalist governments have subjected healthcare budgets to austerity for decades. They utterly mismanaged the initial containment measures against the spread of the virus. And in Europe, this was compounded by a bungling of the EU’s initial vaccination efforts.
The indifference of capitalist governments towards the healthcare of ordinary people has had its obverse in the extreme largesse shown to the super-rich. Vast quantities of stimulus money have been thrown their way. From the beginning of the pandemic to April 2021, Europe’s billionaires increased their wealth by an eye-watering $1 trillion. It is no wonder that many are considering the government’s measures with suspicion, asking, “who benefits from me being vaccinated?”
One teenager from the depressed port town of Vidin, Bulgaria – the EU nation with the lowest level of vaccine uptake with just 42% being fully vaccinated – had some telling words for one journalist. “I doubt the vaccine they give to rich people is the same thing that the poor people get,” he told the Independent newspaper.
Having been left behind for decades, millions of people will find it impossible to now believe that these rotten governments suddenly care about their health.
On the other hand, let us compare the debacle in the heart of the European Union with the achievements of the Cuban government, which are astonishing. As of 18 November, this small island nation has succeeded in vaccinating 89% of its population – which in the case of the Cuban vaccine requires three doses – including children as young as two years old despite not starting to roll out the vaccine until May this year.
The breakneck speed of the development and rollout of Cuba’s vaccine are fundamentally down to the centrally planned economy and Cuba’s world-class healthcare system – the two most precious gains of the Cuban Revolution. But there is also another factor – that the vaccine has been rolled out without incurring any backlash is the product of a widespread trust in a healthcare system that Cubans regard with pride.
Confusion and division
The unrest in Europe over recent weeks and months has naturally shown a great deal of confusion. It is clear that the protests in many countries have drawn in isolated lumpen and petty bourgeois layers as well as all manner of oddballs. But it’s also clear that they have drawn in a number of ordinary people who – although often confused or unconvinced about the vaccines – strongly distrust their government and resent the measures they are applying.
In Brussels, the mass protests of 35,000 people on 21 November included chants of “freedom, freedom, freedom”, saw people raising rainbow flags, and heard the verses of ‘Bella Ciao’ – an Italian revolutionary and anti-fascist song – being sung by the crowd; while others (also, bizarrely, singing ‘Bella Ciao’) carried far-right symbols. In Vienna, at a similarly sized protest on 20 November, there were various blocs – including a bloc composed of nurses at the front line of the fight against COVID-19. Meanwhile, the protest was led by a Nazi group that raised the slogan, “Control the borders, not your people”.
In general, it is these latter, right-wing elements – including outright fascists – who have given these confused protests their general reactionary colouration.
Perhaps nowhere has this been more demonstratively proven than in Italy, where the trade union headquarters of the CGIL in Rome were stormed on 9 October by so-called ‘anti-green pass’ protestors. In actual fact, the main group that led the storming of the building was the fascist Forza Nuova. Clearly the most reactionary and even fascist elements are taking shelter and becoming emboldened under the banner of these protests.
But the ground has been prepared for these demagogic, right-wing groups by years of abandonment of workers by the leaders of the traditional parties and trade unions, who have done nothing to give workers a lead in the midst of capitalism’s historic crisis.
In Italy, the only parliamentary party to stay out of Draghi’s government in the recent period has been the far-right Brothers of Italy party. In the Netherlands, members of the far-right ‘Forum for Democracy’ (FvD) turned out en masse for the protests – a party which has only risen in the past few years by putting on false ‘anti-establishment’ airs.
Meanwhile, in Germany – where the Social Democratic Party has governed in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and where DIE LINKE (‘The Left’) has abysmally failed to provide a serious alternative – the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has captured much of the anti-establishment mood that exists. There is a clear correlation between those regions of Germany with the lowest vaccination rates, the highest levels of poverty, and the largest vote for AfD. Indeed, a poll recently conducted on behalf of the German ministry of health concluded that half of unvaccinated Germans had voted for Alternative für Deutschland at the last federal elections.
The only reason that these far-right groups are able to enjoy prominence and a degree of credibility as ‘anti-establishment’ forces is because of the dereliction of duty of the workers’ leaders. Now those far-right parties are, of course, spreading confusion – assisting the ruling class, which has launched these attacks on the unvaccinated, in spreading division within the working class.
It is all the more unforgivable, therefore, that social-democratic and trade union leaders are in many cases singing from the same hymn sheet as those capitalist governments that are now seeking to divide the working class: by sneeringly blaming the ongoing pandemic on working-class people who have not yet been vaccinated.
They have fallen directly into the trap that the ruling class has laid for them. Measures such as mandatory vaccinations, green passes and discriminatory lockdowns for the unvaccinated cannot succeed in convincing people to get vaccinated – nor are they intended to. Rather, their purpose is to cajole the unvaccinated into getting the vaccine, whilst also provoking division within the working class – between the vaccinated and unvaccinated – dividing workers and diverting blame from the bosses.
No to division! For workers’ control!
In Latvia, where less than two thirds of the population are fully vaccinated, the government has recently given bosses sweeping powers to fire unvaccinated workers. In other countries, such as Belgium and France, specific sectors of workers in healthcare and emergency services are required to take the vaccine or face the sack. In Italy, where the green pass is in operation, workers can opt to take regular tests, but these tests are not freely available.
The unions must reject any threats by bosses to discriminate against, fine or sack workers based on their vaccine status. We do not say this because we are against measures to contain the virus or against vaccination. We fully acknowledge that full vaccination is key to resolving the COVID-19 health crisis. But the problem is not those who do not want to get vaccinated – the problem is the ruling class, which at every step has proven incapable of solving the crisis, whilst adding fuel to the fire of vaccine scepticism.
The latest measures are an expression of the ruling class’ bankruptcy. In fact, whilst taking measures against the unvaccinated, 18 months into the pandemic, the ruling class are still not taking the simple, effective measures that could go some way to solving the pandemic – such as providing free masks and testing, instead of making workers pay for their own tests; applying targeted lockdowns, with full pay for workers involved, where community transmissions are skyrocketing, etc. Rather, they are engaging in vaccine nationalism, hoarding vaccines, and striving to keep profits flowing.
We therefore demand an effective programme to contain the virus and reject attempts to divide the working class:
- No to mandatory vaccinations. No to measures of discrimination that divide the working class.
- Workers’ control in all workplaces so workers can decide democratically where and when to apply mandatory measures and which measures are necessary. Arguments and collective moral pressure from fellow workers are infinitely more effective than the punitive measures of the bosses.
- Where lockdown and circuit-breaker measures are implemented, they should be implemented in a non-discriminatory way, with all workers receiving full pay.
- COVID-19 cannot be brought under control in individual, isolated countries. Make vaccines available for all. Abolish patents and put all COVID-19 and vaccine research in the public domain. Nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies, and the healthcare sector under workers’ control.
- Invest heavily in improving healthcare systems that have been pushed to the brink of collapse, and on improving the wages of healthcare professionals.
- Make testing free and readily available. Take test and trace systems out of the hands of private companies that have pocketed enormous amounts of money in many countries.
- Workplaces and places of study must be made safer by increasing space per worker or student, decreasing class sizes, investing in proper ventilation, etc.
- All of these measures can be afforded on the basis of making the rich pay. Europe’s billionaires are $1 trillion richer than last year – seize that ill-gotten wealth! Nationalise the monopolies, banks and insurance companies and the assets of the billionaires whose wealth has grown exponentially in the course of this crisis.
- End the capitalist system. Down with the bosses’ European Union. For a Socialist United States of Europe. The working class will trust the measures being taken to end the pandemic when they are the ones in control of devising and implementing them.